When you paint on a wall in the middle of the city, people want to talk to you.
They want to tell you how they would have painted things differently, choosing a different shade of green, or a different subject entirely. They want to know why you're there. They want to tell you their stories.
"You did that, man?" they ask. "That is allllright."
For six days last week, the artist known as Gaia painted on the side of a Korean rice cake factory in the 2000 block of N. Charles St. in Station North.
First the Roman god Mercury emerged on the gray cinder block wall, gazing west toward a beauty supply store. Then a tiger took shape over the trash-strewn vacant lot. A glowing landscape appeared, then an image of University of Baltimore's new law school. The face of an arabber, a friend of Gaia, materialized on the eastern edge, his eyes shaded by the brim of an Orioles cap, lips parted as if about to speak.
"I just sit here all day and receive stories," said Gaia, 25, an internationally acclaimed street artist with a wild mop of brown curls. "You are given a tremendous power when you're painting on a wall."
Korean grandmothers, Latino construction workers, men in traditional Muslim dress, a dancer at the Hustler club, commuters from Penn Station and many residents of a nearby high rise for the elderly and disabled paused as they passed the wall. The neighborhood is remarkably diverse in a city that tends to be segregated by race and class.
Gaia's mural kicks off Open Walls Baltimore 2, a series of at least 17 works that will appear on walls throughout Station North and nearby blocks over the next two and a half months.
Gaia, a 2011 Maryland Institute College of Art graduate whose legal name is Andrew Pisacane, is curating the series, as he did the first Open Walls project in 2012. About half of the artists this time are people with Baltimore roots, including the prolific muralist Ernest Shaw; many of the others are friends and associates Gaia met while painting in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.
The project is organized by the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, with major funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the PNC Foundation and the European Union National Institutes for Culture.
Ben Stone, the district's executive director, said that people clamored for a second round of murals after the first Open Walls project. The 22 murals from the first series add to the distinct character of the neighborhood, home to theaters, galleries, restaurants and studios.
"I'd much rather pay someone to do a mural than put a big Station North sign out," said Stone. "We use it as a hook to get people to come in."
But the second Open Walls project has met with some controversy. Members of the activist group Luminous Intervention projected a short film on the wall outside of the Metro Gallery at the program's kickoff party to call attention to what they saw as an underrepresentation of female artists in the mural project. Calling Open Walls a "sausage party," the film pointed out that 14 of the original 15 murals were slated to be painted by male artists.
Olivia Robinson, a MICA professor and member of Luminous Intervention, said she was struck by how many passersby commented that they hadn't realized that the group of artists was overwhelmingly male until they saw the projected messages.
"If the entire roster were 92 percent women, my guess is that is something people would really comment on," she said. "But when it's 92 percent men, people don't notice. It's what they expect."
Stone said Gaia chose artists who were interested in coming to Baltimore to work in Station North but failed to include enough women artists. Stone said his organization was negotiating with other artists, and, as of Monday, had confirmed the participation of two additional female muralists, Betsy Casañas of Philadelphia and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who created a striking series of images of women known as the Stop Telling Women to Smile project.
Baltimore has sponsored mural programs since the 1960s and more than 170 have been painted on city walls in the past 27 years. It's only recently that the city has emerged as an important hub for street art.
Most of the city's mural projects have historically been "community-driven," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. Neighborhood leaders would choose an artist, theme and wall and approach BOPA for funding, he said. BOPA has recently decided to fold the mural program into a "transformative" art project, allowing for more ambitious and complex projects, Gilmore said.
Nanook, a fellow MICA alum and co-creator of Open Walls 2, said the first Station North mural series brought attention to the city's public art scene.
"After Open Walls, Baltimore became an internationally known city for muralism," he said. On a recent painting trip to Mexico City, he was surprised when artists said they were familiar with Baltimore's street art scene and were eager to see it, he said.
Wilfried Eckstein, a member of the European Union National Institutes for Culture, said his group generally focuses on Washington, D.C., but was intrigued by Baltimore's arts scene. Many of the European nations are also dealing with the post-industrial challenges that Baltimore faces, he said.
In addition to the mural project, the European cultural group is helping to fund a series of art works at Baltimore transit hubs. They'll be sponsoring three parkour performers at Penn Station later this month in conjunction with Open Walls.
Nanook said that the out-of-town muralists would stay in apartments in Station North while they were working on their walls. Members of Baltimore Heritage would give them tours of the neighborhood, and they would be encouraged to wander around, meeting residents and business owners.
It's important for artists to channel the energy of the people who live and work near the mural into their work, Nanook said. When he created a mural at Barclay and Lanvale streets for the first Open Walls program, he spent days researching the neighborhood's history and chatting with residents.
"It got me out of my outsider's point of view," said Nanook, a 2011 MICA grad. "I wanted to create something applicable to their lives."
But some question whether the Open Walls muralists seek enough participation from the community.
As Gaia laid out the design on the wall on a Sunday evening, members of the activist group the People's Power Assembly, which meets across the street, questioned why there had not been more advance notice of the project. Gaia said that he and the Station North group had reached out to community leaders, but — although he wished he could — it would be impossible to speak with everyone who would live with the wall.
Others in the neighborhood had little interest in the mural. The clerk at the Halal grocery store up the block hadn't seen it. Juan Perez, an employee of Papi's convenience store a block away, wondered why a beautification project would be prioritized in a city with so many other challenges.
But many of the people who passed by the mural were intrigued by the images Gaia brought forth. They paused and gazed for a long time, called out in admiration or stepped up to chat with the artist, who was bundled against the unusually chilly spring days in a hunter's camouflage jacket.
"I'm an artist, too. Let me show you my work," said Chae Harris, 17, a senior at Cristo Rey High School, who was heading home from school. He pulled the beginnings of a pencil sketch of a woman's face from a folder.
"Hell yeah," said Gaia, nodding. "Let me know if you want to get involved with helping any of the artists out."
Gaia got his start by hanging out with established street artists when he was growing up on the Upper East Side of New York. His work had already gained a following by the time he moved to Baltimore eight years ago to attend MICA.
His distinctive pieces from that time period — evocative figures blending human and animal characteristics — popped up on buildings around Station North, affixed to walls with wheat paste. Since then, he has been commissioned to create works around the world. He has had a solo show at the Baltimore Museum of Art and been featured in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
He spends about three months of the year in Baltimore, hanging out with arabbers, painting murals on car repair shops, creating art for free. These days, he primarily works in paint, forgoing the wheat paste images that were his earlier trademark.
The mural, which he called "Horizons," speaks to the neighborhood's diversity and state of flux.
"This piece is about the changing nature of this community," he said. "There are so many directions it could go. And there's fear invested in that."
Michelle Owens stopped her motorized scooter on a recent afternoon to chat with Gaia. Her little puff of a dog, Jazz, was balanced on her lap. It was her 69th birthday and Owens was heading back to her apartment on the 16th floor of the high rise to listen to music. She takes Jazz to the lot a few times a day and thinks the mural adds much to the view.
"It's nice to look at," she said. "It makes you think."
Robert Grant, 62, studied the mural for a long time as he passed by on his way home from the garage where he does odd jobs.
"You get a feeling from it," he said. "The sky above the mountains tells you you're in this world, but the head" — the bust of Mercury — "tells you you're not."
Gaia decided to leave some parts of the mural apparently unfinished. The tiger's face is rendered in fine detail, but its body trails off in an outline. The body of the man in the foreground, a third-generation arabber named James Chase, fades into a blur of brush strokes. The old sign for "Seoul Rice Cakes" shines through his shirt.
"I never try to completely finish the piece," he said. "It's a thesis without a conclusion, rather than a full statement."
Sitting on a log opposite the mural, Aileen Brown recounted a series of misfortunes. She's been ill and recently became homeless, she said.
"It's a shot of hope," she said of the mural. "Despite everything that's happened, this represents that there's hope."
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